Friday, August 5, 2016

Worship and Contemporary National Concerns

Given the nation-wide discussion at present around issues of immigration and refugee status, concerns for national security, and the problems of unjust treatment of certain religious groups and ethnic minorities, the fall 2016 issue of Liturgy, guest-edited by Tom Schattauer of Wartburg Seminary in Iowa, seems prescient in its focus on “Mission and Worship.”

How shall the church offer a liturgical response to the needs of our neighbors? Ruth Meyers writes of her personal involvement with a worship response to the treatment of immigrants in the United States, using it as a springboard to consider how worship is mission.

Here is the beginning of her essay:

In May 2014, while hosting a small dinner party with friends from my local congregation, I had an unexpected moment of awakening when one of my guests said with a smile, “I was in your neighborhood this morning.” Continuing, she explained, “The county jail down the road houses undocumented immigrants. A group from our congregation has been joining monthly prayer vigils outside the jail.” I knew of the facility—it’s next to a county park where I hike. But I had no idea that the federal government was using it to hold women and men charged only with a civil immigration offense and not with any crime.

In the months since then, I’ve participated in the vigil many times, joining others from my congregation and other churches, as well as people of other faiths and some with no faith commitment. A different group leads the vigil each month, so the ritual varies. But like any good ritual, some elements are unchanged from month to month. We gather on a small plaza at the entrance to the detention center; an overhang provides shade for at least some participants and shelter on the rare occasion we have rain. We stand in a circle, which grows larger as people arrive for several minutes after the vigil starts. The vigil begins with introductions: a leader walks around the circle with a portable microphone; some people give their first name, others first and last, and many identify their congregation or organization. Next, a leader reads a prepared statement explaining “why we vigil.”

. . . After the gathering, the structure of the ritual varies from month to month. Song––some songs in English and some in Spanish––is always integral. At times an individual or group performs while other participants listen, but every vigil includes some communal song. Testimony is featured each month. We have heard stories from recently released immigrants, family members of detainees, immigration lawyers, and activists. Once, two women arrived to visit their mother who was being held in the detention center, and they found themselves drawn into the circle of the vigil, then moved to tell their story. Prayer is another constant, though its form varies depending on the leader. When a Christian group is leading, scripture is usually included.

In these interfaith vigils, mission and worship are intertwined. Through song and prayer, participants worship as they offer praise and intercession to God. By hearing why we vigil, listening to testimony, and raising voices in a moment of noise, participants engage in God’s mission of justice and reconciling love. We might say that these vigils are a form of missional worship, or, perhaps, worshipful mission. . . .

Approaching liturgical worship as an act of mission is not a matter of technique, a set of practices, or a recipe that can be followed. Rather, it is an art that takes many forms.

The August 19 posting will continue with further ideas from Dr. Meyers on this theme.

Ruth Meyers is dean of Academic Affairs and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, a member of the Core Doctoral Faculty at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, and author of Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission (Eerdmans, 2014).

Ruth Meyers, “Mission and Worship: Making the Connection,” Liturgy 31, no. 4 (2016): 3-10.

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